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I have recently noticed that the tense of paper titles can be somewhat odd. This previous question, In what tense (present/past) should papers be written?, has some great information but it doesn't directly answer for titles.

Some random titles:

  • Improving source code search with natural language phrasal representations of method signatures
  • A comparison of stemmers on source code identifiers for software search
  • Using Formal Models to Objectively Judge Quality of Multi-Threaded Programs in Empirical Studies
  • Modeling Programmer Navigation: A head-to-head empirical evaluation of predictive models

Most titles (in Computer Science) look to be present progressive. Is there a rule/reason behind this?

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Usually titles either don't have any verbs or have verbs in simple present. In your examples, there are no verbs in titles. Words “improving”, “using” and “modeling” are not verbs but rather gerunds (in your examples); see – Yury Feb 5 '13 at 6:59
up vote 21 down vote accepted

First: the usual (read: boring) way of writing academic paper titles is indeed without verbs:

A study of acquired growth hormone deficiency and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism in a subject with repeated head trauma

or using gerunds (which is a verb form, but in that case is used to construct a present progressive but a noun phrase):

Understanding acquired growth hormone deficiency and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism in a subject with repeated head trauma

However, I think include a verb is possible, and oftentimes makes the title much catchier and appealing to the non-specialist reader. For example, the titles I “quoted” above are of my own making, but the real title for the article (and believe me, you want to read it) is:

Acquired growth hormone deficiency and hypogonadotropic hypogonadism in a subject with repeated head trauma, or Tintin goes to the neurologist

There: even if I know nothing of “acquired growth hormone deficiency” and “hypogonadotropic hypogonadism”, I know what the paper is about.

Now, if you use verbs in article titles, they are mostly going to be about established facts, generic questions, mathematical proofs, … which means you should write in the present tense.

  • Vitamin C enriched diet can prevent scurvy
  • Minesweeper is NP-complete

I particularly like to use questions in titles, as they make quite clear the problem you're tackling:

  • How hard is the measurement of quartz hardness? A review of the commercial available apparatuses and their robustness
  • How fast does the swallow fly? Reexamining the impact of the bird's geographical origin

In a few cases, you would talk about a historical event, and then you'd use the past tense:

  • How World War One was won: the role of time travelers from the twenty-second century
  • The CERN measurement was not a fluke: finally establishing the Higgs discovery at the 10-sigma level
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Did you have any legal hurdles in taking Tintin to the neurologist? – Marc Claesen Mar 5 '14 at 9:50

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